Checking your cause and effect chain can only help you devise as tight and compelling a plot for your book as possible.
The heart of a great book is a strong plot. Much has been written about plotting, but the core of a good plot is the cause and effect chain. All plot points, big and small, are dependent. One leads to the next, each the result of the former. Some plot points are huge, like the climax. Others are subtle. A few belong to the subplot(s). Many will work in tandem. All should work together to make one bang-up ending followed by the perfect, resolution, or denouement, where loose ends are tied up so well it makes the reader sigh with deep satisfaction.
Great writers bear this chain in mind at all times – even if only subconsciously. They intuitively understand how it works and work to fix it when it is broken.
The concept of the chain was elaborated by the novelist E. M. Forster in his book Aspects of the Novel. His widely cited example of a broken chain and a working chain is about a king and queen. He famously elaborated: “The king died, and then the queen died, is a story, while The king died, and then the queen died of grief, is a plot.”
The king died, and then the queen died is an “episodic” series of (potentially) unrelated events. Episodic events are not a chain, they just happen to follow each other. The best example is to think of a TV show where each installment is independent of the previous one. You might be watching the story of a single family, but each episode can stand on its own. You could write two episodes of a TV show about a royal family and there might not be connection. The king dies in one episode and the queen in another.
By contrast, many TV shows tell one long story that starts in episode one and leaves you out on a cliff in the series finale. This is a classic example of the cause and effect chain to rivet you to tune in next year.
The king died, and then the queen died of grief is “causal.” In your TV series, one episode with the king’s death would be linked to the episode with the queen’s death. Part of your story would be describing her sadness – maybe she actually thinks of committing suicide before she wastes away of a broken heart in her swan-shaped bed.
This is why Deus ex machina, or “god from the machine,” gets up people’s noses so much. It is a non-sequitur. The solution comes out of nowhere as a lazy fix to a plot that broke its cause-and-effect chain. For the Greeks, having a god drop in from the sky (as an actor on a machine), seemed a great idea for resolving conflict and concluding a drama. Modern readers want real plot.
You can check the strength of your chain by writing down your plot points. Make sure you can say “and so” between each one in a casual relationship that is both believable and compelling to the reader. Even if you are only just putting the first plot points together chronologically, you can start checking your chain – and whether it is broken.
Doing this will often reveal what is still missing in your plot, or what is extra and should be removed. If anything in your book doesn’t lead to something else, it shouldn’t be there in the first place. Save it for your next book, or just be happy you have so many great ideas you have a surplus.
Here is a longer example with five episodic events followed by links that make them into causal events that define a plot.
- The granddaughter arrives.
- The grandmother gets a pedicure…
- Cuts her toe…
- Ends up in the hospital…
These five events are unrelated (episodic) and as such are uninteresting (non-causal). They take on a different form when the missing information is added – the parts that explain the “and so.”
Here is the elaborated version as a full cause-and-effect chain. The causal relationships are explained with “and so” linking our events so we create a plot:
- The granddaughter, who was away working in Japan, arrives for her annual visit.
- She gives her grandmother a very special gift: Together they go to get a pedicure.
- Sadly, the pedicurist cuts her grandmothers toe by accident.
- Tragically, a few days later, an infection starts, which they ignore as benign, but it isn’t, and she ends up in the hospital with a high fever.
- In the hospital, she catches an antibiotic-resistant super bug that can’t be cured and so, she dies of sepsis in the course of a few days. The granddaughter is scarred for life by the thought of inadvertently killing her beloved grandmother with her intended act of kindness.
You don’t need to have any missing links in your plot if you do this check on a regular basis as the story evolves. Make sure you can point to the words in your text where the “and so” is elaborated. Having the causes in your head is not good enough. They need to reach the paper. They need to be explicit to the reader and believable.
Looking at your book in this condensed, blinkered view will often release the creative juices as well. At this bird’s eye level you can soar with the speed of a jet over your story, adapting the main features of the landscape at whim.
It really is this simple. An airtight, well-justified cause-and-effect chain will give you the best possible chance to succeed with your book. The hard part is coming up with juicy, gripping links to the chain. Knowing they have to be there is just part of your job as a writer.
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